Exclusive Interview With Tim Witherspoon: “Nobody Teaches Defence Today”

By James Slater - 05/02/2024 - Comments

It’s fair to say Tim Witherspoon was a fine fighter who had all the fundamentals, the Philly fighter having the tools as well as the teaching. Today, when looking at today’s best heavyweights, the former two-time heavyweight champ feels strongly that the likes of Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua haven’t had the necessary teaching in terms of the defensive side of the game.

Tim, who is 66 but looks and sounds a whole lot younger, puts his good health and youthful appearance down to the sound defence he was able to employ as a fighter. And for sure, Witherspoon, who fought as a pro from 1979 to 2003, and compiled a 55-13-1(38) record, was stopped just four times, with three of these stoppages defeats coming towards the end of Tim’s career, when he was past the age of 40.

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Witherspoon was kind enough to spend some of his time talking about his career and what he’s up to these days, as he spoke with ESB this week.

Q: First of all, can you speak about the documentaries you are working on?

Tim Witherspoon: “There is one that’s done, with Bernard Hopkins – “In The Company of Kings.” And one I’ve got coming out that’s just on me. My book, ‘Terrible Times’ that didn’t tell the whole story at all. Matter of fact, the guy who wrote it, we had a falling out at the time, because he didn’t put in all the stuff that should have been in there. So I’m really glad I’m doing the documentary now. There’s a lot of stuff to be told, about the mafia, all kinds of stuff….”

Q: It’s coming up 41 years since your great fight with Larry Holmes, this a fight a heck of a lot of people felt you actually won.

T.W: “Oh, wow, it’s crazy how times flies. The thing is, I had a great defence. That was key in that fight. Holmes was a great fighter, but he didn’t have a great defence, he was a jab, right hand guy. His defence was to grab. He had great heart of course, but we studied Holmes in the gym, and I had a great trainer in, Slim Robinson. Slim was my guy, he was my only trainer. I would talk with guys like George Benton, in the gym – and they had knowledge, they would pass things on to me. But Slim was the main man, always. In the Holmes fight, Slim had us take his jab away from him. That’s what these fighters, these young fighters don’t today, because they haven’t got the teachers. Slim was cool, man, and he was a real good teacher. But I learned in that fight that you have to really beat the champion, you have to convince [the judges] and leave no doubt. Holmes, he was the bigger name, he was the champ, and if it was close he was gonna get it.

“But talking about defence, defence is one of the most important things for any fighter. Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, both can hit real good and there is nothing wrong with their offence, but they haven’t got a great defence. I was blessed with the right schooling. Thomas Hearns is a great example…… he was killing everybody, but he was all offence. And I love him and Emanuel Steward of course. But as his career went along, he started having tough fights and it took it’s toll. And today, the damage he took, with Tommy Hearns, it’s hard for him to communicate now. You need both: defence and offence. And whenever I hear a trainer say that your best defence is your offence, I get offended. Larry Holmes, as great as he was, he couldn’t teach a young fighter defence if he was a trainer, because he didn’t have no great defence himself.”

Q: You sure had a better defence, and chin, than Frank Bruno, who you stopped in what is another of your most famous fights.

T.W: “I said it before, if Bruno had my trainers and I had his, he would have won the fight. Bruno had a pretty good defence, he was tight with his hands. But he got tired and then he wasn’t hard to hit. He couldn’t block shots like I could. But that fight, the entire country wanted him to win, you could feel the energy.”

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Q: You are a two-time heavyweight champ of course, having beaten both Greg Page and Tony Tubbs for belts. Who was the better fighter of the two?

TW: “I’d say there were about the same in terms of overall ability. Tony was flashier, Tony was quick. Page hit hard. But Page tried to be like Ali, as he was from the same town as Ali. Tony was the better boxer of the two.”

Q: Are you in favour of 15 or 12 rounds in world title fights?

TW: “I think it was a good move going to 12. 12 rounds is enough to become the heavyweight champ, or the lightweight champ. Those last rounds, 13, 14, 15, that’s a real ordeal, when fatigue sets in, and you can get badly hurt then. It’s can be a survival thing, and that’s not how it should be. I think it was definitely a good move going to 12 rounds.”

Q: That’s interesting, and some older fans might be surprised at your answer. The one fight you never got, and it could have happened had you not lost to Bonecrusher in the infamous rematch, was you against Mike Tyson. You at your very best, could you have beaten him?

TW: “Tyson, he was young-kid strong and he came out whupping everyone, with all the momentum in the world. My career was ups and downs, with me getting ripped off. Don King was all in on Tyson, he wasn’t interested in promoting me no more. But me at my best, with my head right, with the motivation right and the right frame of mind, I do believe I could have beaten him. But Mike would have fought me, he didn’t care about my trials and tribulations [with King; Witherspoon having often strongly suggested he took a dive in the Smith rematch so as to get out of King’s clutches). It would have been a good fight.”

Q: Talk about your time working with the great Ali, at Deer Lake.

TW: “Oh, that was the best. Ali, just to be around him…… He was past his best by then, and when I sparred him I refused to hit him in the head. Angelo Dundee – I love Angelo, we both came from the same area. But in camp, Ali really didn’t listen to Angelo, he was there to see that Ali got in shape and he pumped him up and gave him confidence.”

Q: And Bundini, what was he like?

TW: “Man, he was funny. I didn’t learn too much from him myself, but he was a funny guy and he made you laugh. He would cuss and he drank. He passed away (in the 1980s). Gene Kilroy is still a great friend of mine, we talk a lot. He’s another great guy. Back in the day, Gene would go into town and check out what the reception was gonna be for black people. You know, it was like that back then. Gene would go in first and find out how we’d be received.”

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Q: You’re awesome KO of Anders Eklund remains a favourite on YouTube. You really chopped him down with your right hand!

TW: “Yeah, Eklund was a really strong guy, he pushed me around in the ring. It might not have looked like it, but he was so strong. I’m glad I got him outta there quick. He passed away, I think around six or seven years after our fight.”

Q: And you sparred Gerry Cooney early on in your career, and busted him up?

TW: “I wouldn’t say I busted him up. I sparred him, and I came over the top with a right hand that caught his nose. He was really hurting guys [in sparring] back then, breaking ribs and stuff like that. Slim told me, ‘Tim, it’s okay, he ain’t gonna hit you with any of that stuff.’ He told me to watch for when Cooney would dip to get ready to throw his big left hand, and I just moved across to the side and he couldn’t hit me. It was easy. I was just a young up and coming fighter then. me and Gerry are friends today, he’s another great guy.”

Q: Finally, champ, who wins the Tyson Fury-Oleksandr Usyk fight?

TW: “I’ve said it so many times, and for so long, Fury’s gotta go to his body in the fight. Forget about the head! For Usyk, if I was training Fury, I’d tell him hit the body, the shoulder, the arms, anywhere. Let him know he’s been touched, take his movement away. Forget the head. If Fury does that, he wins. [He has to] jab to the chest, to the arm, anywhere. I wish I was with Tyson Fury, I love that guy. I’m not sure Sugar Hill is right for him; he’s never fought, he doesn’t tell him the right things. Go back and check his previous fights, what he says in the corner. Sugar Hill, he got his start because of Emanuel. Fury, he should just jab to the body and work off that, wear him down, take away his movement and his confidence. But I’m not sure he will do that.”

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